Victims urged to visit sex assault units

Victims of rape and sexual assault can go to any of the country’s six sexual assault treatment units without reporting the incident to the gardaí, a major GP conference has heard.

Dr Nicola Cochrane, a member of the Irish College of General Practitioners’ women’s health programme, said staff at the treatment units will do an assessment of the victim and store sample material.

Dr Cochrane, who works in the sexual assault treatment unit in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, said many victims of rape and sexual assault delay reporting the crime by a year or more: “Sometimes there can be delayed reporting by more than a year and sometimes by a number of years. We want them to know that they have an opportunity to have an assessment without making a commitment to report the crime to the gardaí.

“It gives us an opportunity to collect very valuable forensic evidence that can then be used if the person decides months later to make a report,” she explained.

Dr Cochrane said the evidence could be held for 12 months or even longer, if necessary. The unit will the person after 12 months to ask whether or not the evidence should be disposed of.

“If they still want more time, we can keep it for a further 12 months,” said Dr Cochrane when she spoke at the annual general meeting of the ICGP in Dublin yesterday.

She was also anxious to clarify that doctors can provide contraception to sexually active teenagers in the absence of a parent or guardian.

The Irish Medical Council states that if a young person refuses to involve a parent or guardian, a doctor should consider the young person’s rights and best interests.

Dr Cochrane said the Children’s First Act was amended last December so it is “quite reasonable” for doctors to provide contraceptives to a child under the age of 16 who does not want their parents to know.

Where a teenager is aged between 15 and 17, is engaged in consensual sexual activity with a person within 24 months of the same age and understands the nature of the activity, the treating doctor is not obliged to report it.

“We know that between 27 and 31% of 15 to 17-year-olds are sexually active in Ireland with teenagers who are within 24 months of the same age,” said Dr Cochrane.

“I wanted to clarify the matter because a lot of doctors felt conflicted and confused.

“It is good medical practice for doctors to provide contraceptive services to a teenager who is sexually active regardless of whether they involve their parents and regardless of what other actions the doctor may take to safeguard the teenager.”

Meanwhile, the ICGP — the country’s training body for GPs — has predicted a widespread shortages of GPs. 

More than 660 GPs are due to retire over the next seven years at a time when significant numbers of younger doctors are emigrating.

It says the situation has been exacerbated by the HSE’s serious underestimate of the extra demand created by free GP care for under-sixes since July 2015. 

The visit rate of under-sixes has increased to 28%, well ahead of the 3.3% increase anticipated by the HSE.

Incoming ICGP president, Dr John O’Brien, said the system is in crisis, with a growing number of GP teams closing their practices to new patients and the HSE unable to find doctors to take on medical card lists.

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